A large freezer lies broken outside a shop on the deserted street of Atali village in Haryana’s Faridabad district, some 70 km from the national capital. The confectionery shop, vandalised and looted in communal violence, belongs to one Ahmed, who fled to a relative’s house at an undisclosed location after the fateful evening of 25 May.
In a way, the script departed from the usual lack of trust and rumour-mongering that sparked off riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in the last century. There was a surprising amount of interaction between the two – until that fateful night when a Hindu mob numbering around 2,000 decided to settle the issue once and for all. They allegedly attacked Muslims and set their houses on fire.
There is a striking resemblance to the events at Ayodhya, where too a mosque vied with a temple as a place of worship — except that here, a mosque was sought to be built besides an ancient temple with the sanction of a district court.
The relief is that no death has been reported so far, although over 50 persons were left injured in the clashes. But the trauma has been life-changing, with the entire Muslim community along with some Hindu families fleeing the village, abandoning their houses.
Interestingly, this dispute too, dates back to the 1970s, reminding one of how a devastating chain of events spun out of the decision to allow Hindus to worship at the disputed site they called Ram Janmabhoomi. While the Hindus claim that the land belongs to the village panchayat, the Muslims say that it is the property of the Waqf Board and the court has allowed a construction of a mosque on that land. This issue has been simmering for over four decades.
According to Hindu villagers, there used to be a graveyard for Muslims on the land till the early 1970s. Since there was an ancient temple beside it, it was decided that the graveyard would be shifted to another location. Therefore, in 1972, a separate one-acre plot was allotted to the Muslims in the vicinity of the village to build the graveyard. (Hindus say the mosque too was supposed to be built there.) However, Muslims continued to offer prayers at the disputed site till date. Representations were made to the authorities by the Hindus over the years, but, the tension never escalated to a point where there would be clashes between the two communities.
“Why can’t they build the mosque at the plot which is much bigger than this?” complains Tilak Kumar, who is also hopeful of the safe return of Muslims to the village. It will be peaceful for us all. We don’t want any violence. We have been living together for ages. But they (Muslims) are still reluctant to build it on the disputed site. Some compromise has to be made.”
However, the Muslim version is different. They say that the separate plot was awarded only for the graveyard and not for the mosque. Moreover, the site is “very far” from the village. According to Muslims, they used to offer prayers at the disputed site under a temporary structure which was burnt down by Hindus in 1992. Later, a tin shed was built for Muslims to offer namaz, which went on till 2009.
“Why should we go to a far off place to offer namaz? That is our land and the mosque will be built there, the court has also ruled in our favour. They (Hindus) should follow court’s ruling,” says Suleiman, 50, who was also injured in the clashes.
On 31 March, a Faridabad court ruled in favour of Muslims and allowed the construction of the mosque. “We approached the Waqf Board of Haryana which gave us the go-ahead and also sanctioned Rs 2 lakh for building the mosque,” adds Suleiman.
It was only in 2009, that resentment began to arise in the minds of the Hindu community when Muslims attempted to draw the boundary and start the construction of the mosque. The Hindus protested against it and procured a stay order from the court on the construction of the mosque. According to the Hindu villagers, this was when village head Rajesh Chaudhary, who was contesting sarpanch polls then, had promised Muslims that he would help them in building the mosque if voted to power. There are over 500 Muslim voters in the village, which can prove to be a deciding factor in village-level polls, as compared to 3,000 Hindus, who get scattered among various Hindu clans. The timing of the court ruling was unfortunate — it comes uncomfortably close to the panchayat election due any time between August and September this year.
The Love Jihad Strand
In one way, however, the hostility between the two communities grew because of the horror with which villagers regard inter-faith marriage, even in this day and age. In the contemporary language of innuendo and polarisation, it is being described as a case of ‘love jihad’. Which might be an exaggeration and hyped, but agitates the minds of the villagers, nevertheless.
Around a year ago, Ahmed’s 23-year-old son Naushad eloped with a Hindu girl from the village. The villagers protested against the marriage. A series of meetings followed between the two communities. As a result, the village panchayat accepted the marriage but the couple still chose to live in a nearby village for fear of backlash from the locals. While the news of their marriage was just fading away from memory, there occurred the mosque controversy. The elopement then became one more stick for the two communities to beat each other with.
Ridiculous as it may sound, the village gossips added to the tension, as Muslim women allegedly teased their Hindu counterparts over the inter-faith marriage. “Musalman auratein bolti thi ke Hinduyon ki ladkiyan to aise hi bhagengi. Hinduyon se apni ladkiyan nahi sambhal rahi (Muslim women would tease us that Hindus can’t handle their own daughters and they would run away like this),” claims 53-year-old Phoolwati as she cooks food on a clay stove. Incidentally, the village gets piped gas supply but the service was disrupted when part of the pipeline was damaged in the clashes. Now they are all using clay stoves or buying LPG cylinders in the black market.
Chuchak is a ceremony where the girl’s family sends gifts for a newborn. Taunts about why gifts were not being sent, made women like the middle-aged Suman Kumari angry; men initially ignored all this.
Exception to the Rule
While the entire Muslim community in the Atali village escaped to Ballabhgarh police station fearing for their lives; Mohd Waheed, 50, along with his wife and parents chose to stay back. He says he doesn’t fear anyone. “Why should I run away? This is my home and I’m not going to leave it. Also, no one has said anything to me. No one came to attack me or my house. I belong to this place and I will not go anywhere,” says Waheed, who runs a bullock cart for living. He, however, says that he has sent his children to his relatives house ever since the clashes broke out. On being asked whether he wants the mosque to be built, he answers yes, but “peacefully”. “It is a place of worship. No loss of blood shall take place for religious purposes. The issue should be resolved amicably and it is for authorities to decide how it should be done,” he adds while expressing regret over the incident.
They should have perhaps taken heed. Muslim women working at the mosque construction site started taunting Hindu women on their way to the temple. During one such occasion, stones were pelted. “They attacked us first,” alleges Phoolwati, who goes to temple daily with her group of eight women. “We ignored their taunts, but it became too much. And when we protested we were attacked with stones.” There is a sense of déjà vu, as in towns and cities across Indiatempers have risen when a religious procession of members of one community would pass through another’s domain.
Still, scores of discussion did take place between the members of both the communities in the grand old tradition of village panchayats. Finally, the Hindu villagers decided they must oppose the construction of the mosque beside the ancient temple. Hindu women were allegedly attacked when they took out a protest march against the construction of the mosque on the morning of 25 May.
By evening, matters had reached a flashpoint. As the violence and burning erupted, over 200 Muslim families fled the village overnight, taking shelter at a police station in nearby Ballabhgarh town, some 12 km from Atali. Meanwhile, the entire village bears a deserted look, with little or no activity. The authorities have imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits any mass gathering of the locals in the village. Policemen and commandos in large numbers guard the entire village along with the mosque under construction.
A Study in Custody
Suleiman who is lodged at the Ballabhgarh police station after the clashes, breaks down on seeing photographs of his gutted house in Atali village. “The moment we heard news of the violence, we packed our necessities and ran away. We were out of the village before the attackers could reach us,” he recalls. His house is bang opposite the mosque. He fears going back to the place where he grew up and called home and requests the media to bring his religious books from there.
As many as 500-odd Muslims are staying at the Ballabhgarh police station. The scene is reminiscent of a relief camp after a disaster. Days after some people complained of heatstroke, the SDM installed three coolers at the police station. “There is no shortage of food as such. Sometimes, we get it from our home, on other occasions some NGOs donate it. The authorities have also installed a few coolers after several complaints. We hope to get more. But still, this is not how they are supposed to live,” says Mohd Zahir, 21, who is volunteering at the relief camp.
Life Must Go On
Shaheed, 62, and his family ran away from the village abandoning his house and cattle on the evening of 25 May. He, however comes to Atali village every evening to feed his five cattle. With no other sources of income, he says he can’t afford to lose his cattle. “I haven’t eaten properly for the last three days. The food for cattle which was stored at my house is also burnt. I’m feeding them the leftover,” cries Shaheed who often goes back in a police gypsy to the Ballabhgarh police station where his other family members are staying. He adds he could have gone to his sister’s house in Delhi but for the cattle. “I could have gone but what about my cattle, I can’t take them to Delhi. Who will look after them if I go,” he asks, adding that the mosque should be built at its original site. “We have lost everything, our house is destroyed. Now that mosque is the only thing to give us strength and it should be built soon.”
While the authorities have also set up temporary toilet blocks at the police station, there is no arrangements at all for baths. “The men manage on their own, but women go to a nearby madrassa to bathe. There is also a public facility in the vicinity, but that is not enough,” complains, 17-year-old Bilal, a volunteer who has just finished school.
Atali, a teacher from Atali, and mother of two rues: “Most of the women have no extra clothes. We depend on others to feed us, to help us. We are living like beggars here and have not got any assurance from the government so far. I haven’t attended school since last week. I don’t know whether I would be able to join my job again.”
Meanwhile, negotiations are on between Hindus and Muslims of the village to facilitate the return of the latter, with no fruitful outcome. The Hindus maintain that they won’t allow the mosque to be built besides the temple. “We want them to return to their homes,” maintains Tilak Sharma, as he puffs on his hookah. They will not be harmed. But we can’t allow the mosque to be built. They have land available and they will have to build it there,” he says.
On the other hand, the Muslims ask what harm the mosque will cause the Hindus. “They (Hindus) say they love us and want us to return to our homes. If they love us so much, why can’t they allow us to offer prayers at our mosque? We have been offering prayers at the site under tin for decades now. What difference will a roof make to them?” cries a middle-aged man before Union Minister Krishan Pal Gujjar, who is also a member of Parliament from Faridabad.
The Muslims have refused to go back unless the state assures them that the mosque will be built. Also, at the receiving end are some Hindu families who lived in the Muslim locality in the village. They have escaped to their relatives’ home after the fateful evening. One Lakha Chaudhary, whose house is behind the mosque, fears that internecine warfare could resume when villagers return.
“We can’t risk our lives. I have shifted to Faridabad city to my brother’s house. We will only come back if the two communities broker peace,” he says over telephone. Unfortunately, though, all attempts so far to broker peace have been in vain.